I never much cared for Ellsberg as a person, riffed a friend of mine, quite surprisingly, over drinks when I mentioned the movie I was reviewing this week. Maybe it was the ponytail, his activist roots or his longtime friendship with Howard Zinnbut Id assumed my pal would be jazzed about me covering a movie that chronicles the most legendary Washington whistle-blower of all time.
Sure, he did a great thing for this country, my friend noted, signaling for another round of beers, But I still think that guy might be kind of an asshole.
Its my sad duty to report that The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers will do nothing to sway my drinking buddys opinion. Narrated by Ellsberg himself, its a big, sloppy, undeniably riveting blow-job of a documentary, allowing its subject final say with no outside critical perspective or even a dissenting viewpoint. He also comes off as douchey.
I guess its probably best to think of this as a much-needed corrective to Errol Morris The Fog of War, which began the incredibly annoying PR rehabilitation of Vietnam War-architect and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara under similar hero-worship terms, until his death last summer passed fairly unnoticed with few besides my father and I dancing in the streets.
McNamara bears the brunt of it in Most Dangerous Man, as Ellsberg begins the picture as a geeky, think-tank operator for The RAND Corporation, so gung-ho hes willing to do a tour in Vietnam just to see how great everythings going. Upon his return, our hero eventually grew so disillusioned with the state of things in the former French Indochina that he Xeroxed and leaked 7,000 pages of a secret, deeply incriminating McNamara study to his elected public officials.
Stop me if youve heard this one, but sometimes politicians get us into wars that last forever and go nowhere under false pretenses.
Ellsberg didnt get much response from what Howard Zinn calls the culture of timidity in Congress, so he finally blew it all out with the New York Times . Government injunctions followed, as did 18 other newspapers daring to speak the truthdamn the consequences. Eventually, junior Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska read the contents of these Pentagon Papers into the Congressional record as part of a filibusterwhere is such bravery today?
Its a problematic film, too beholden to its subjectyet exciting all the same. I could have done without Ellsbergs bizarre tangents about his love of body-surfing, or him equating a childhood memory of his father nodding off while driving the family carkilling his mother and sister. It was a cheap, Freudian explanation for why he needs to be vigilant over government. We get the point, never let your leaders fall asleep at the wheel. But its also reductive and stupid, and feels packaged for anecdotal consumption.
Bizarrely enough, The Most Dangerous Man In America induces a weird sense of nostalgia for a time when reporters did their jobs and a leak like this could prove fatal for an administration.
It made me miss larger-than-life gargoyles like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, as opposed to their pathetic, tawdry neer do well counterparts George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. (A simple audio clip of Tricky Dick swearing to take down that no-good shit-ass son-of-a-bitching newspaper had me squealing and kicking my feet.) The sinister science-fiction-y implications of the RAND Corporation are so much scarier and more fascinating than tedious profit-motive machinations of Halliburton, so I guess the movie works best as an eerily prescient time capsule.
They say that those who dont learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and if The Most Dangerous Man In America proves anything, its that weve been stuck in a feedback loop for decades. Its dj vu all over again, except now neither the heroes nor the villains have any balls.
Running time: 92 minutes